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The Drug War

How far will Columbia go?


Text : Julie Lambert, Montreal


Photo : Indiana Prevention Resource Center

The scourge of war rages throughout the World in many ways. In South America, Columbia in particular, coca is the major cause of armed conflict. Pablo Escobar’s country, where mafias, drug cartels and political corruption are common currency, is prey to a civil war centred on controlling drug trafficking. In addition to the drag traffickers themselves, several camps, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia* (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian army, paramilitaries and US soldiers are all vying for drug trafficking money and insisting on their part of the pie. From right-wing militiamen to left-wing guerrilleros, all have their own way of fighting. And their motives are as equally irreconcilable and numerous. They include the money to be made from drug trafficking, the Columbia Plan’s (backed by the United States) eradication of coca and the return of integrity to the fight against corruption (for example, the fight put up by the Colombian Ingrid Bétancourt*).

The country is swimming in veritable political, economic and social chaos, and the trafficking of coca is the main cause. Freedom of expression no longer exists; people die daily because they try to understand or talk about the conflict. Large cartels, though weaker than in the previous decade, terrify those who dare rise up against injustice. Mayors step down, journalists and political leaders go into exile or are assassinated, and people take up arms to better defend themselves against constant threat. Kidnappings and disappearances also occur regularly. Everyday, Colombians see their country plummet, their population grow impoverished and their rights denied. Such is the reality of daily life in Columbia . . . such is the reality of the drug war.

The Columbia Plan: Pastrana’s idealism remodelled according to the US


Since the 1980s, Colombians have not been the only ones involved in their combat. The fact is, in 1998, Pastrana, Columbia’s president, appealed to Washington by putting forward the Columbia Plan, based on increased legal exports from Columbia to disrupt drug trafficking. The initial plan, as laid out by Pastrana, never came to be. The Colombian’s idealism never caught on in the US Congress and Clinton merely reshaped the Plan to provide assistance based on his country’s political ideology.

Photo : American Foreign Policy Online

This resulted in highly-sophisticated military equipment, helicopters to fly over coca fields and fumigate crops, satellite surveillance, the latest in communication devices, sprayer aircraft equipped for defoliation, massive budgets… the list goes on. The assistance plan barely meets the country’s most basic needs and fails to reach its primary objective: to help peasant farmers stop growing coca and take up food crops instead, such as bananas.

An article in Monde diplomatique, entitled Plan Colombie, passeport pour la guerre [Columbia Plan, passport to war], sheds light on some of the reasons behind the Columbia Plan, which is backed by the United States. It says, the sole objective of the Columbia Plan is to reinforce, equip and train the Colombian army. Pressured by Washington, it goes through the motions of engaging in a war against drugs, while neglecting the social and political nature of the conflict. A pretext to hide the real objectives of future US intervention—which is to keep control over this vitally important region, rich in strategic resources (particularly oil)—has been found. The main threat to the hemisphere, in the eyes of the Pentagon, is not Cuba but rather the possibility of a Colombian drug-state of Columbia arising. Rumours have been circulating around funds diverted to such things as the Aruba sun destination airport renovations and the construction of on-site spacious accommodations equipped with televisions and microwave ovens for the Plan’s representatives.


Coca also brings in considerable amounts of money, and thus the government and the many players in the fight against drugs never succeed in meeting their ends. Peasant farmers grow increasingly poorer, and cultivating coca remains a lucrative business. International assistance comes late, and growers have no choice but to continue growing the plant that, paradoxically, slowly destroys their country.



Area: 1.1 million square kilometres
Capital: Bogota
Population: 40.8 million
Language: Spanish
Currency: peso
State: Republic
Government: Presidential democracy
Head of State: Alvaro Uribe


ELN: National Liberation Army (5000 combatants)
FARC: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (15,000 combatants); Columbia’s main guerrilla group and Latin America’s oldest.


*Translation of Table taken from a Zone libre article published November 16, 2001.


Perspectives on the future: what is in store for Colombia?


The implementation of the Colombia Plan and its application to other Andean countries shapes the future of this South American country. A new president, Alvaro Uribe, has also just come to power. Will he bring change or maintain the status quo? Time will tell. Yet, by arming Colombians, perhaps Uribe has decided to wage war against the war and give back to his country and Colombians dignity and peace. Following the trail left by Ingrid and others, we will witness Columbia move towards better times.

*Ingrid Bétancourt: a woman of honour

This Colombian, who lived in France, put her life at risk when she decided to free her country from corruption and give it back its freedom. A woman of honour, she has been called Columbia’s Don Quixote. She believes in her country and thinks that Colombians have spilled enough blood. An extract from her book La rage au cœur tells how complicated the Colombian conflict is. What fuels the war machine is drug trafficking. Drug trafficking finances guerrillas, paramilitaries and many of the usual politicians who are corrupt and hold power.

Ingrid Bétancourt has been held in her native country by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), since February 23, 2002. She is being held hostage in exchange for FARC prisoners. Nobody knows if she is still alive. She entered politics in 1994 when she became an elected deputy, then became a senator in 1998. Before being abducted, she was campaigning for the 2002 presidential elections (won on May 26 by Alvaro Uribe). Convinced that the corruption brought on by drug trafficking is destroying her country, she fought relentlessly to end terror and restore peace to Colombia.